In terms of both his artistry and personal life, Swedish rapper Yung Lean’s career has been a tumultuous one. Starting out as a cloud rapper in 2013 with plenty of vaporwave influence on albums like “Unknown Death 2002” and “Unknown Memory,” he has since transitioned into more of a singer-songwriter. In the midst of producing his third studio album “Warlord” in 2016, Lean suffered a mental breakdown and an overdose. This hospitalization coincided with the death of his manager and friend Barron Machat, all of which was covered in the 2020 documentary “Yung Lean: In My Head.” His recovery and evolution have been fascinating to watch, with Lean developing side projects Död Mark and jonatanleandoer96 to release punkier and more balladic styles of music, respectively. He has shown himself to be a much more versatile artist than many first gave him credit for. With his latest release “Stardust,” Lean switches influences towards an album that is happier than his output of the past few years. While his music usually is best suited for a rainy day in a darkened room, much of this new material is more appropriate for playing through the AUX cord during a sunny car ride.
The change in energy is evident from the first track, “Bliss,” a collaboration with FKA Twigs which draws its lifeblood from a constantly moving, groovy baseline and ’80s rock drums. Lean’s delivery on the track, and this is true of the rest of the album, is different—still deep-voiced and awkwardly tortured, but now it’s also somewhat playful and reenergized. Twigs’ appearance is easily the best of all the guests included, providing a complementary melodic counterpart to Lean and a catchy chorus. “Paradise Lost” with Ant Wan is another successful collaboration because Wan raps his verse in a smokey Swedish accent that pairs well with Lean’s unique singing. It’s unfortunate that the other collaborations don’t quite coalesce as much as they could have, as it means that the best songs are usually ones where Lean is working alone.
I most anticipated two production credits from Skrillex on “Lips” and “SummerTime Blood,” the latter of which also features Bladee and Ecco2k, but they’re blandly crafted songs for someone who is known for explosive EDM. “Lips” is just lazily written, with an insipid chorus and boring verses, and an equally tiresome beat to boot. “SummerTime Blood” is the better of the two, but it’s really more of a Bladee and Ecco2k song as Lean offers a flow we’ve heard too many times before. The worst song on the album is easily “Starz2theRainbow” with Thaiboy Digital, again because of Lean. Thaiboy is smooth, but Lean sings every line totally atonally, his voice cracking with every utterance of the hook. Lean’s vocals are so surprisingly bad that I’m not sure how he justified this creative choice to anyone else, even if we take into account his history of idiosyncratic singing.
Strong highlights from “Stardust” include “Trip” and “All the things,” coincidentally perhaps the two most high-energy tracks. The beat on “Trip” is delightfully upbeat, employing plenty of hyperpop production tactics like fluttering drums and a shrill synth lead. “All the things” starts slow, but eventually builds towards a euphoric techno climax that goes—for lack of better words—really hard. The last third of the album resolves delicately in a four-song run that, after the disappointment of “SummerTime Blood,” returns to the kind of structureless songwriting that Lean demonstrated his proficiency at in his 2017 album “Stranger.” Overall, I’d say squarely half of the songs on “Stardust” are good—the other half wavers at the boundary of pleasantly listenable, with only one truly bad song. The runtime wraps up at a quick 35 minutes, making this album a worthwhile listen, if only to pick out the ones that belong on a playlist.